Being a perfectionist and having a colicky baby do not mix

A mother explains how she questioned her parenting abilities because of her baby's colic
By Tonilyn Hornung  Published on 10/16/2018 at 9:00 AM EDT

The anxiety was worse at night.

Deep breathing, hot showers, and hot chocolate did nothing to alleviate the heaviness parked in my chest. Its early morning visit was as predictable as my newborn’s cries—both of which I was having a hard time getting used to. The louder my son screamed, the heavier my chest felt. I wanted to be perfect at this new mom thing, but my son’s wails were an obvious reminder that I wasn’t. If my unease had a voice, I knew exactly what it would say: “You’re doing it wrong. You’re doing this all wrong.” And the voice would be right.

“I have to bring him in. He won’t stop crying.”

The truth was that I couldn’t console my son. I left this embarrassing admission out of the message I sent to our pediatrician. I wasn’t sure how to tell him that I was the problem. I assumed after I gave birth, some sort of latent mom gene would come in (along with my breast milk) and I’d know how to comfort my child. This gene would let me understand a beautifully secret language that my son and I shared. My gut would be able to recognize a gurgle from a babble, and that way I could help him through anything. Apparently, though, I don’t speak baby and the only thing my gut knows is where my husband hides his vanilla cake. I was miserable at motherhood.  

My son had left the hospital happy and healthy. He was exhibiting no symptoms of a serious illness, but four weeks later I was living with a baby Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He seemed like a normal baby during the day, but at night he would scream like a toddler being told the world had run out of cheese crackers. I just knew the rookie mistakes I was making were somehow subconsciously damaging him for life. I should be able to calm him, but I couldn’t. So, at this point, I deemed it best to call in the professionals.

After checking my son’s vitals (which were fine), the doctor asked me some questions: Yes, he cried mostly at night. Yes, these cries were louder than those during the day. Yes, during the night his tummy seemed to bother him. My doctor informed me that it was likely my son had colic. I learned that colic is a mysterious newborn state where a baby has predictable times of prolonged crying and distress. In our case, as soon as the sun set my otherwise happy infant turned into a screaming misery.

There’s no cure for colic. My sympathetic doctor gave me some helpful suggestions, let me know that it disappeared around month four, and told me to get some rest. My sleep-deprived brain gradually did the math—three more months of this? It was then I felt like screaming, but my baby did it for me.

“You’re doing your best. Don’t you feel better knowing it’s the colic making him cry?” my husband asked offering me a slice of cake.

No, it didn’t make me feel better. My best wasn’t good enough. What kind of mother was I going to be if I couldn’t tackle this now? The car stayed parked in my chest.

Like some sort of supernatural creature (or a mom with a colicky infant), I dreaded the sunset. There were hour-long stretches when he was inconsolable. I began to pull out all the mom tricks I’d heard about: rocking, walking, sitting, yoga-ball-bouncing, magic tonics, singing, feeding, not singing. The ones that worked I put on a rotation until my infant relaxed—even if it was just for a short time. It was a great deal of trial and error, but mostly it felt like error.

In the hushed hours of the night, my heart would reach out, wishing to be his perfect mother. If I were perfect, I’d be better at knowing what to do. Finally, I’d watch his face turn a normal color and listen to his soft sleepy breathing. Only then would I feel a small sense of relief. Maybe my motherhood DNA had finally taken shape and I’d discovered his secret language! Maybe I could do this right. Then his face would contort, and the crying would start. The parked car in my chest was turning into a 18-wheeler truck.

“I just don’t know why he’s crying,” I confided in my friend, “But I should know because I’m his mom…”

“Honestly, you may never know…”

This simple logic was all that was offered, and it rocked my world.

Maybe being a mom wasn’t about already knowing everything, but about getting to know everything. Maybe I didn’t need to find the perfect solution, because I was the solution. Motherhood wasn’t about being perfect, it was about being there.

In the light of day, it became clear that all the walking, bouncing, singing and not singing I’d done had actually been helping. He’d definitely had serene moments in my arms, but I’d been going for the gold, hoping for days and nights of unattainable sleepy bliss. His colic was not going to allow that. Babies will cry. My desire to do it perfectly had eclipsed all the good I’d done. I may never know why he’s crying all of the time, but I can understand why he’s crying some of the time. I might actually be doing it right.

Now, I understand that it’s not about being a perfect mother, but about perfectly being there. Once the truth of this sank in, the 18-wheeler finally moved on its merry way. I’d love to have all the answers, but it’s possible I won’t—and perhaps that is the answer. Hey, maybe my mommy gene has come in, after all! Maybe my gut does have some sort of deep secret mom knowledge! And if it doesn’t, in times of crisis at least I can still find my husband’s hidden cake.

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